Highlighting cancer cells with macromolecular probes

Sicheng Tang, Yang Zhang, Ek Raj Thapaliya, Adrienne S. Brown, James N. Wilson, Françisco M. Raymo*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Conventional fluorophore-ligand constructs for the detection of cancer cells generally produce relatively weak signals with modest contrast. The inherently low brightness accessible per biding event with the pairing of a single organic fluorophore to a single ligand as well as the contribution of unbound probes to background fluorescence are mainly responsible for these limitations. Our laboratories identified a viable structural design to improve both brightness and contrast. It is based on the integration of activatable fluorophores and targeting ligands within the same macromolecular construct. The chromophoric components are engineered to emit bright fluorescence exclusively in acidic environments. The targeting agents are designed to bind complementary receptors overexpressed on the surface of cancer cells and allow internalization of the macromolecules into acidic organelles. As a result of these properties, our macromolecular probes switch their intense emission on exclusively in the intracellular space of target cells with minimal background fluorescence from the extracellular matrix. In fact, these operating principles translate into a 170-fold enhancement in brightness, relative to equivalent but isolated chromophoric components, and a 3-fold increase in contrast, relative to model but non-activatable fluorophores. Thus, our macromolecular probes might ultimately evolve into valuable analytical tools to highlight cancer cells with optimal signal-to-noise ratios in a diversity of biomedical applications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationColloidal Nanoparticles for Biomedical Applications XII
EditorsMarek Osinski, Wolfgang J. Parak, Xing-Jie Liang
ISBN (Electronic)9781510605978
StatePublished - 2017
EventColloidal Nanoparticles for Biomedical Applications XII 2017 - San Francisco, United States
Duration: Jan 28 2017Jan 31 2017

Publication series

NameProgress in Biomedical Optics and Imaging - Proceedings of SPIE
ISSN (Print)1605-7422


ConferenceColloidal Nanoparticles for Biomedical Applications XII 2017
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CitySan Francisco


  • Amphiphilic polymers
  • cancer detection
  • fluorescence imaging
  • halochromism
  • molecular switches
  • nanoparticles
  • self-assembly

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Electronic, Optical and Magnetic Materials
  • Biomaterials
  • Atomic and Molecular Physics, and Optics
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging


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